E3 may have been a buzz of videogames, but the Wii U is big news. Nintendo’s upcoming console is as powerful, if not more powerful than both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, both of which are still considered to be in their prime even though games are already using the full potential of both consoles. While the hardware specs are still under wraps, I did get some hands-on time with the Wii U on a number of games, and the hardware is indeed fascinating in many respects. In traditional Nintendo fashion, it’s something unique that speaks to the idea of playing with friends, but unlike the Wii, also connects to individuals directly.

That’s why it’s the Wii U.

First things first: the Wii U is a small box, larger than the Wii but smaller than the Xbox 360 Slim. It can play games at up to 1080p, but considering how Nintendo admitted that it’s about as powerful as the current generation game consoles, I wouldn’t be surprised if most titles run at 720p, with few (if any) playing at full 1080p. The only major title on the 360 or PS3 that plays at 1080p is Gran Turismo 5, and doing so was, and to many still is considered a technological feat.

The second portion of the Wii U is its controller. The Wii U gamepad is the largest of any game controller made in the past 10 years. It is a tablet, and has a large 6.2” resistive display built right into it. This controller is really what makes the Wii U special; games can be played with both original Wii Remotes, as well as a newer Wii gamepad, but the standard controller is the Wii U gamepad. The tablet has as many buttons as the Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 controller, except with the single-touch touchscreen and a stylus on the back.

If you’re wondering about the resistive touchscreen, don’t fret. Resistive touchscreens, when built properly, are just as potent as capacitive screens except that they only allow for single presses at once. From my use with the gamepad, the screen is perfectly responsive.

You may think that this is a strange, if not just plain dumb way to play games. That is absolutely wrong. The Wii U makes complete use of that secondary display in some incredible ways. Batman: Arkham City Armored Edition uses it almost like Batman’s own armor computer, enabling quick equipment changes, status updates, and a persistent map. Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge uses the touchscreen as a method to perform magic attacks and change weapons in-game, without pausing and going through the menus. New Super Mario Bros. Wii U uses it to help up to four additional players traverse through levels by placing blocks anywhere on the screen. And Scribblenauts: Unlimited uses it as a persistent keyboard and mirrored screen, so a TV isn’t even necessary to play.

In fact, that last use may be one of the most appealing for the Wii U. Much, if not most of Nintendo’s success these days comes from the company’s portable console business, not from home consoles. Nintendo 3DS and DS owners play everywhere, on the road and at home. The Wii U offers the same “portable” experience at home, with a stay-at-home console. I can see it clear as day: kids playing on the couch with a Wii U controller instead of a 3DS or DS, or even instead of a PS Vita or smartphone. And why not? There are a handful of games shown at E3 that mirror the TV on the miniature screen, and because the gamepad is wireless, players can get comfortable in a lazy boy or futon, relax, and play full console games in the palm of their hands.

This unique fact is only half of what the Wii U offers. Because, after all, it is a home console, it can do everything that your PS3 or 360 can in terms of graphics and power. But the additional tablet controller allows for some very ingenious gameplay mechanics and maneuvers previously impossible, something that Microsoft is now mimicking with their Smartglass tech. The key difference is Smartglass will always be a separate device; either use the phone or a gamepad. With the Wii U, it’s all in one. If you’re playing a sports game, you can map where players should go using the touchscreen instead of relying on pre-assigned selections. Or you can type out full messages on a screen, more akin to typing on a smartphone, than using analog sticks. There’s no doubt that wargames will use the display as a secondary HUD, radar, or literally hundreds of other functions.

Having that sort of power put in the hands of developers is really interesting. Both Kinect and Move for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 require a lot of movement from gamers, something that has for some changed the way gamers play, but for many more adds little to nothing to the game experience. Kinect owners know that their sensors are used mostly for shouting commands in blockbuster titles, like telling a teammate to fire in Mass Effect 3. Helpful, but not maximizing the potential of Kinect. The Wii U gamepad goes in the opposite direction by offering players known technology – a tablet – and in a sense telling players “play however you like.” What Nintendo is doing with the Wii U is genuinely refreshing.

Unfortunately the company has been very quiet on the specifics. Representatives I spoke with showing off the latest games wanted to answer questions, but most didn’t even know; they’d only been told about the Wii U and the information they needed to show off their given games a day before the show started. All I know for certain is that the gamepad, like the Wiimote, connects via Bluetooth. It’s unclear whether it will have rechargeable batteries or not, what type of Bluetooth connection it uses (presumably Bluetooth 4.0, considering the bandwidth needed to transmit video and audio with excellent stability), the expected battery life, or really anything else. The only other tidbit I know for sure is that Nintendo, as of now, stated that only one Wii U gamepad will work per console; two is possible, but the software will need to be optimized to handle two tablets simultaneously.

Here are a few additional, more technical notes regarding the Wii U:  it will include 8GB of internal flash storage, plus any SD cards or USB memory sticks users have. There will be four USB 2.0 slots, and like the Wii the Wii U will use a sensor bar. The gamepad also has accelerometers and a gyroscope, speakers, a mic, a front-facing camera, and it will support NFC (near field communication). The Wii U will also display video through AV analog cables and HDMI 1.4.

The Wii U Pro Controller is also a surprisingly well designed gamepad as well. It’s extremely light, yet is about the same size and shape as the Xbox 360 controller. The major difference is the placement of the right analog stick and buttons; they are reversed from Microsoft’s controller. There are also a few additional face buttons, but the weight is most important. Then again, Nintendo’s had a few years to improve on Microsoft’s brilliant design.

My opinion on game consoles is that the Xbox 360 is the best conceived and most well-built. The Wii U is quickly changing my mind because of the capabilities of the additional gamepad. I can’t see myself suddenly switching over from either the Xbox or PS3 to play traditional titles on Nintendo’s untested network, but if the game has more to offer because of the gamepad, then I absolutely do. Who wouldn’t? It adds a whole new dimension to gameplay, and for many games, a level of convenience and/or realism.

James Pikover

Spawned in the horrendous heat of a Los Angeles winter, James was born with an incessant need to press buttons. Whether it was the car radio, doorbells on Halloween or lights, James pushed, pressed and prodded every button. No elevator was left unscathed, no building intercom was left un-rung, and no person he’s known has been left un-annoyed.